Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving Turkey

Whew! I finally got Japan out of my system and can focus on things Western.

Thanksgiving passed uneventfully at our place, with a meal quite similar to last year's. But with one difference that I must comment on: the turkey.

At the recommendation of my friend John, I ordered this year's turkey from Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch, proprietor Frank Reece. Reece is believed by many to produce the best heritage turkeys available on the market.

Here is Reece's mission statement:
Good Shepherd Turkey Ranch strives to produce historically authentic Heritage Poultry, grown free range, vegetarian fed without antibiotics for your quality dining. Our objective is to protect APA approved Standard-Bred Poultry. We believe that the best way to do this is by returning them to your dining table.
The turkey we had was a great reflection of this mission. It was shaped like a bird that could fly (and indeed it could), long and lean without the huge breasts for which most American turkeys are bred. The white meat was flavorful and moist, the dark dense and deliciously pungent.

Here is how I cooked it:
The 15-lb turkey arrived on Wednesday at 3:00 PM (late enough to scare me), cold but not quite frozen. I generously salted it under the skin and in the cavity. On Thanksgiving day, I rinsed it a bit, then put it breast side down over ice packs. Just before cooking, I dried it and rubbed it with olive oil and Michael Chiarello's fennel spice rub. Cooked on a V-rack 45 minutes breast side down at 450, then turned and cooked at 325-350 for 1 hour 45 minutes. The breast was perfectly cooked and the bird a magnificent even mahogany color. The joints were tight and it was hard to separate the thigh/leg quarters, which usually fall away of their own weight; I had to really push hard to snap the joints. But the meat was done, and ready for a 45-minute rest.
The cost of this turkey, including shipping, was $160. Really expensive compared to a local supermarket or even a good butcher, but it was definitely worth the price.

Bobby Jay

Tokyo - Mitsukoshi's Food Department

Most department stores in Japan have extensive food departments in their basements. Based on my experience, the best of these is at Mitsukoshi Nihonbashi in Tokyo, although Takashimaya Nihonbashi and Matsuya Ginza give Mitsukoshi a run for its money.

Tempura and yakitori counters

At these food emporia, one finds the best of Japanese alimentation, beautifully presented, along with outposts of luxury food purveyors from around the world selling their signature breads, pastries, chocolates, cured meats, cheeses and other prepared foods. Prices are generally high and with the weak US Dollar, astronomical. The beef pictured below, admittedly the most expensive I found in my trip, costs 5,000 yen per 100 grams, which works out to $295 per pound!

Yakitori (detail) and unagi (eel)

Despite the economic downturn in Japan, which has left most of the floors of the department stores pretty empty, the food floors are bustling. Great quality, variety and presentation work even in tough times.

Sushi-ready tuna (toro and chutoro) and umeboshi (pickled plums)

The world's most expensive beef
You learn a lot about a culture by studying its food. A trip to a Japanese department store basement is an entertaining way to do this.

Bobby Jay

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Tokyo -- Daigo's Elegant Temple Food

Joan and I were recently taken to Daigo, one of our favorite restaurants in Tokyo. This elegant restaurant serves amazingly refined shojin (i.e. vegetarian) kaiseki meals in an exquisite setting. One eats in a tatami room with a view of a private garden, served by kimono-clad women who silently glide in and out of the room through shoji doors.

Daigo was formerly on the premises of the nearby Daigo-ji temple, but was relocated into a modern multi-use complex as part of a deal by which the developer obtained some temple property on which to build the complex. The new version is just lovely, and the arriving visitor immediately feels that he or she has entered into a world far removed from the surrounding bustling neighborhood in central Tokyo.

As mentioned above, the food is vegetarian kaiseki, and has is roots in Buddhist temple food. This is not the spare cuisine that one associates with abstemious monks but rather an exuberant celebration of the seasonal variety of Japan's food bounty.

A feast for all the senses, Daigo is a must for the first-time visitor to Tokyo.

Bobby Jay

Kyoto Takeout Lunch

Kyoto bento lunch
We went to visit an art dealer friend in Kyoto who has trouble getting around, so we had takeout at his shop. Although there is plenty of fast food in the ancient capital, a takeout lunch in Kyoto can include a beautiful bento like this one. Refined.

Bobby Jay

Kyoto - Autumn Tea Sweets

Fancy sweets are often served in Japan as part of the tea ceremony, to precede informal matcha or even before or with regular green tea. This is especially true in Kyoto, where the tea ceremony tradition is more alive than elsewhere.

Tea sweets often don't taste as good as they look to Westerners, because the sweet part is generally made of red bean paste, which is not part of our dessert repertoire, although chestnuts, frequently used in autumn, are more consistent with Western sweet tooth. But whether you like them or not, you have to admit they are beautiful, nearly works of art at times. And in the autumn, with seasonal tastes (chestnut) and visual references, they are at their most gorgeous.

 Bobby Jay

Friday, November 25, 2011

Kyoto - Home Cooked Takoyaki

Our Kyoto friend Hitomi, an excellent chef, knows that I have a weak spot for takoyaki, grilled octobus balls. Often found cooked on the street or near temples, these little balls resemble grilled fritters (if that's not an oxymoron) stuffed with a little piece of octopus. They require a special implement but Hitomi says that takoyaki makers are very common in the Kyoto area, where the little balls are very popular. Here's Hitomi making takoyaki in her non-stick propane model.

Step 1 (adding octopus bits to the wet batter)

Steps 2 (adding scallions and bonito flakes) and 3 (adding more batter)

Steps 3 (waiting for batter to start solidifying) and 4 (turning soft batter for even cooking)

The finished takoyaki

I should note that Hitomi let me turn a few in the last couple of steps. Perhaps it's the experience of helping make them or of having them at a friend's home, but this takoyaki seemed a definite cut above what one finds cooked on the streets.

Bobby Jay

Kyoto - Nishiki Market Spice Shop

While exploring Kyoto's Nishiki food market street, I came upon Ochanoko Saisai, an artisanal spice shop where everything is ground and packaged on the premises. The shops offers passersby potato chips dusted with some of their spices as as a clever way of sampling their offerings. I bought very spicy shichimi (spicy powder made up of seven ingredients, including chili peppers of some degree of heat) and sansho pepper (not really a pepper at all, but pods of the prickly ash tree, whatever that is). These are common Japanese ingredients, but tasted uncommonly good to me; perhaps they were better because they were so fresh, perhaps it was the romance of the place.

Ochanoko Saisai (note the cool can)

The grinding apparatus at Ochanoko Saisai

Some of the finished products

Experiences like my short visit to Ochanoko Saisai are what make the Nishiki food market so much fun to visit.

Bobby Jay

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Kyoto - Back to Nishiki Market

After our ceramics tour of Western Japan, my wife Joan and I spent a few days in Kyoto, my favorite place in the world to be as a tourist. It is full of temples and shrines, the greatest gardens to be found anywhere, charming old commercial buildings and residences and, certainly not last, sophisticated great food.

For me, the food starts at the fantastic Nishiki market, right in the middle of town, off the covered shopping street Teramachi. Friends have told me that the really best food is in the ground floor of the department stores, but I must say that what I saw at the Nishiki market looked fresh and appetizing. It is also much more fun to visit, although department store food markets can be quite amazing in Japan.

The market is picturesque, and I got good shots of many of the local specialties.

Yuba (tofu skin), many types of pickles, for which Kyoto is particularly famous, rice, mushrooms, konbu from different parts of Hokkaido (see packages), tea, shirako (tuna sperm), yakitori, hand-made bonito flakes and the machine that one uses to make them, and tiny fish used atop rice.

A truly amazing market!

Bobby Jay

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Japan Ceramics Tour - Bizen, Izu, Oiso

The tour continued to Bizen, via the charming but touristy town of Kurashiki, and then to the Izu area and Oiso, where we saw great ceramics but did not discover any great Japanese food. We did stay at an interesting inn, Arcana, on the Izu Peninsula, which featured beautiful Western style rooms with luxurious individual outdoor baths and carefully prepared (overly precious) Japanese French food.

The extraordinary artists that we visited included the giants of Bizen ceramics, Kakurezaki Ryuichi and Harada Shuroku, who have each in his own way broken with tradition in his forms and who masterfully develop amazing colors in their wood-fired kilns . . .

Sculptural forms by Kakurezaki

Side view of a plate by Kakurezaki

Powerful unglazed vessels by Harada Shuroku

. . . Ogawa Machiko, whose powerful forms look as if they have been torn from the earth (and who is having a major retrospective at the Toyota City Museum . . .

Ogawa in front of her exhibition poster
. . . Sugiyura Yasuyoshi, who is renowned for his ceramic flowers, among other things . . .

Flowers by Sugiyura

. . . and Kawase Shinobu, the greatest living Japanese celadon artist, whose elegant forms simply exude perfection.

 A pair of celadon bowls by Kawase Shinobu

Room with private bath and "French" breakfast at Arcana

And thus ended Joan's Magical Mystery Ceramics Tour, 2011.

Bobby Jay